Reversing the Trend in Modern Worship

Illustration: The Directory for the Public Worship of God, one of the documents produced by
the Westminster Assembly (1643-48)

Reversing the Trend in Modern Worship

The conflict over worship today manifests itself in what have been called ‘the worship wars’. In many church buildings you witness a platform with a plethora of musical instruments. If you check out the order of service you will find that more time is given to so-called ‘worship’ than to the reading and preaching of the Word of God. You may hear people say, “We had a time of worship and then we had a message from the visiting speaker.” Is this a sign of spiritual health? Have we made progress in the last twenty years? Or is it a mark of the lack of genuine spirituality and a question of filling a vacuum? 

Has the time come for another reformation? For Calvin it was the issue of worship that necessitated the 16th century Reformation. He said: “The primary rudiments by which we are wont to train those whom we wish to win as disciples of Christ, are those; viz, not to frame any new worship of God for themselves at random, and after their own pleasure, but to know that the only legitimate worship is that which God himself approved from the beginning.” In his tract entitled On the Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin speaks of “the whole substance of Christianity that is a knowledge first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained.”

What is required to recover true Biblical worship? There are certain basic considerations:

1) True worship is directed wholly to God 

‘Worship’ is a transitive verb. It demands an object. Everybody worships some thing or somebody.  Everybody has an altar and every altar has a throne. The question is, Who is on the throne? What is highest in our lives? What do we value most? The highest object ought to be the triune God. We come to this God and we ascribe His worth. We make a response to God and we have a passion for God. He must be the sole object of our worship (Exod. 20:3).

The worship of the Reformers and the Puritans cannot be understood without the high vision of God contained in the Bible and in their Confessions of Faith. The restraint which marked Puritan worship sprang directly from much humble meditation on the inexpressible glory of God’s being. They were drawn to delight in this glorious God and His image was reflected in them. Dr J I Packer makes a comparison with them and us: “The experimental piety of the Puritans was natural and unself-conscious because it was so utterly God-centred, our own (such as it is) is too often artificial and boastful, because it is so largely concerned with ourselves.” (Among God’s Giants, Eastbourne, 1991, p.283)

2) True worship is centred in the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven

For Calvin, Christians ascend into heaven while worshipping. Worship draws the Christian into heaven in communion with the ascended Christ. Our Mediator descended in the incarnation to lift us up to heaven. He has entered “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Heb. 9:24). Believers are seated with Christ “in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3). They are united to Him. They have an entrance into the Holiest through Him and their persons and offerings are accepted in Him. He leads the praise of His brethren for “he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” (Heb. 2:11-12).

But that is not all. The Church that is in the heavenlies is also on earth. Paul writes to “the saints which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1). They have two locations. They are a colony of heaven. They are the Body of Christ on earth. The link between heaven and earth is Christ dwelling in the believer and in the Church by the Holy Spirit. As Calvin observes, the enthroned Christ helps us heavenward as His Spirit descends to empower the Word and sacraments of the Church. “Such is the weakness of our minds that we rise with difficulty to the contemplation of his glory in the heavens.” The Hebrew Christians were hankering after the glories of the old Levitical system. They were forgetting the greater glory – the glory that surrounds our High Priest in heaven. God is the glory in our midst.

3) True worship is dependent upon Spirit-inspired truth

We all need to ask why our worship is not more uplifting and transforming? The response of many is to try to make worship more pleasing to the senses. The tendency even among some Reformed Churches is to make services more user-friendly and so be a means of winning converts. But the question needs to be asked: What have these changes done so far to inspire holy living, to give a hunger for the Word of God or to arrest falling numbers in churches? 

Worship expresses our theology. W Robert Godfrey says that Calvin would have insisted that those who think they can preserve Reformed systematic theology while abandoning a Reformed theology of worship are wrong. (The Worship of God, Mentor, Fearn, 2005, p.49). The two go together. Salvation is all of God and so too is worship. Reformed worship like Reformed doctrine is God-centred and God-directed. The late Dr William Young declared: “Man’s will may contribute nothing more to God’s worship than to God’s plan of salvation, and it is no accident that will-worship and rejection of the doctrine of salvation by grace alone flourish together.” (Worship in the Presence of God, Greenville, 1992, p.80).

The true public worship of God is counter-cultural. To make people feel at ease is not its purpose. It is that they may sense the presence of the living God. The teaching of 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 is rather overlooked today. The Spirit who inspired the truth is the One who can make the means of grace efficacious to sinners. Words spoken by T E Peck in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1884 are worth pondering. He refers to those who resort to the devices of human wisdom “instead of humbling themselves before the Holy Ghost in earnest prayer for his quickening which alone can make any ordinances efficacious for salvation... The true glory of Christian worship consists in the presence and power of the Holy Ghost and without the Holy Ghost, all our paraphernalia of ‘long drawn aisle and fretted vault’, of painted windows and ‘dim religious light’, of symbols of lamb and dove, of pealing organs and what not are but the paraphernalia of a corpse lying in state. It is a vain attempt to conceal the reality of death.” (Quoted by Iain Murray in To Glorify and Enjoy God, Banner of Truth, 1994, p.191). 

May the Lord intervene in His mercy to reverse the trend! As Terry L Johnson says: “The way we worship today will determine the shape and substance of our piety for generations to come.”